ICMR warns food labels on packaged items can be misleading

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The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has warned that food labels on packaged items can be misleading and consumers should read the information carefully to make informed and healthy choices. The apex health research body said that sugar-free foods maybe loaded with fats, while packed fruit juices may contain only 10 per cent fruit pulp.

In its recently issued dietary guidelines, ICMR has cautioned that claims on packaged food are designed to catch the consumer attention and convince them that the product is healthy. “Though the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) has strict norms, the information presented in labels could be misleading,” the dietary guidelines for Indians issued by the Hyderabad based National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) under ICMR said.

Giving some examples, the NIN said a food product can be called ‘natural’ if it doesn’t have added colours and flavours or artificial substances and goes through minimal processing. “This term is often used rather loosely. It is often used by manufacturers to identify one or two natural ingredients in the mix and this can be misleading,” it said, urging people to read the label, specifically the ingredients and other information carefully to cross-check the claims.

For the claim ‘real fruit or fruit juice’, it said that according to the FSSAI regulation, any food item with even a small amount, for example, fruit juices containing only 10 or less percent of fruit added to a product is allowed to state that the product is made with real fruit pulp or juice.But the product claiming to have real fruit may have added sugar and other additives with only 10 per cent actual fruit pulp.

As for ‘Made with whole grain’, it said these words could be misinterpreted. Such a statement does not necessarily imply that the food items are not tertiary or ultra processed. When a food label says ‘organic’, it may simply mean that it is free of all artificial preservatives, flavours and colours and that the food ingredients are free from pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

If both the above are met, then the label can state 100 per cent organic and have the ‘Jaivik Bharat’ logo approved by the FSSAI. Further, it said that people often associate sugar-free foods with lower calories and perceive these to be beneficial for diabetics and weight watchers.

“Sugar-free foods may be loaded with fats, refined cereals (white flour, starch) and even hidden sugars (maltitol, fructose, corn syrup, molasses). These would imply high glycemic index and high calories in the food item,” the NIN stated.